Those Precious First Three Years of Life

January 9, 2010 by Geoff Nixon

Where the Learning is Fixed Concept Comes From

A number of scientific experiments have confirmed that in the first three years of life the brain is in complete learning set up mode.  It assumes nothing and processes everything, connecting everything to everything.  For instance, a door opens and a dog barks — early in life this is remembered in case it is useful. 

In the first few weeks of life babies can recognize the different faces of monkeys, until they recognize there is no useful purpose in holding that information and so they lose that skill.  By a process of trial and error the brain eventually figures out how to learn, what is connected and relevant, and what isn’t.

Fast ForWord software founder, Michael Merzenich, talks about an experiment involving rats placed in different sound environments.  Some rats heard a rich variety of sounds and music, while others hear only a ceiling fan with one repetitive sound.  As you might guess this difference in environment had a huge stimulative impact on activated brain growth. 

No doubt about it, the first three years of life are critical.  After this wonderful period of growth in learning skills the brain has made most of the connections it needs for learning and so shuts down this aspect of growth to focus more on learning actual content, i.e., learning the language, sounds for reading, etc.

This is where the learning-is-fixed idea comes from.  From the knowledge that the first three years of life are unique and indeed they are.  It is also true that once learning mechanics are wired, it is harder after those first three years to change them.  Naturally, “rewiring” is harder than wiring for the first time. 

But that is where it ends.  Because of what we now know about brain plasticity, it is not true to say that rewiring is not possible.  Just because you don’t have a brain in always-on mode it does not mean that a brain that has glitches in its early set up cannot be trained to improve. 

Rewiring is possible, or said another way learning is not fixed.